Of Warbikes and Wind Harps

Let me begin with the term “wardriving”, which smacks of salutes and Bushian foreign policy, but which actually refers to roaming about looking for wireless networks to plug into.

This is a new word to me.  It comes from “wardialing”, a concept from the 1983 film WarGames where it meant searching for computer systems with software that automatically dialed numbers until a computer was found.

Today, it usually means driving around with a suitable laptop until an open wireless network is found and access obtained.  The related term “warbiking” is used when the hunter uses a bike.

And this brings me to a recent segment on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Radio One program Spark about David McCallum’s warbike project.  The project consists of turning those invisible wireless tendrils, which now silently fill the space around us and through us, into sound.

As McCallum describes it after he altered his wardriving software to make sounds: ” Suddenly, the invisible networks could be heard and felt as the backpack would squeak and squawk as I cycled through them. It would chirp in high pitches with high signal strength, and rumble in low bass pitches when in the presence of weak networks. I was no longer observing the networks, I was experiencing them.”

He goes on:  “The knowledge of the placement of wireless networks in a neighbourhood is not simply empiric, it changes one’s perception of that space. The awareness of these invisible communication webs alters the way that one perceives and associates with the area.”

One can bike or one can walk and even without the modern electronics begin to approach the same intimations about the invisible, and visible, currents of the places, usually urban spaces, that one ambles through.  This is the art of the flâneur or the activity known as dérive the idle stroll taking everything in. Curious that the French have coined the words for us…

You can listen to the sounds of McCallum’s sonic warbike in the background from the audio link on the Spark website.

When I heard the sound of the warbike on the radio, the veering tones whirring and hissing, chiming and whispering, it took me back 30 years…

*                                                                   *                                                                 *

In the mid-1970s, I worked as a staff writer for a mining newspaper and mining magazine.  My first degree is in psychology, in which I earned a B.Sc., and so those academic letters were placed after my name in the masthead, to go along with one or two geologists on staff with the same letters.  This would help impress our mining industry readers when they read my stories.  The masthead was silent on the psychology part, though it would have been a daring breakthrough for the publishers to have included it.

But since I had gone on to get schooling as a journalist, this was where I found myself stranded.  I took the job to extricate myself from a small town weekly newspaper.  But I was seriously depressed. Remarkably still rather idealistic, the shallowness and greed of the mining industry felt like a weight on my chest.  I had to fight myself constantly to appear enthusiastic about my assignments: I would occasionally fly to mines in the States or in Canada and write fluff pieces to interest investors.

So I felt even more like an outsider than I usually do.  In a basement apartment, I made one of my earliest abortive attempts to write a novel.  And I read extensively: Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Krishnamurti, Emerson, Thoreau, translations of Chuang Tzu’s Taoist writings, Lionel Rubinoff’s The Pornography of Power, Mishlove’s The Roots of Consciousness, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Lovelock’s and Margulis’s ideas about Gaia…  I hungered for another direction.

Then I read William Irwin Thompson’s Passages About Earth and I was greatly moved by it: so moved that I wrote him and the community of countercultural academics that he had set up in New York and called the Lindisfarne Association.

Although awareness of Thompson has faded greatly now, in those days Passages About Earth and especially his earlier book On the Edge of History were lauded by mainstream respectables such as The New York Times and Time magazine.

Through such chapters as “Walking Out on the University”, “Of Physics and Tantra Yoga”, “Planetary Mythologies” and especially, “A Note On the Lindisfarne Association,” he hammered together literature and science, mythology and spirituality, and the sparks that flew up inflamed my mind.  Maybe this was… something.

The Lindisfarnians wrote back and agreed that I could visit the community at Southampton on Long Island.

I quit my job, leaving in my wake a pretentious and self-righteous resignation letter, and with a sort-of girlfriend headed east across Canada by rail and bus.  I said my goodbyes to her in Ontario and headed south to New York City.

As a country boy from Quick, BC, I had many fear fantasies about arriving in New York City.  I half expected gun-play in the streets or knife attacks.  Fortunately none of this occurred and other than feeling disoriented by the frenzied pace and dirty streets, I made my way to the Long Island Rail Road and the long rattly ride towards the end of Long Island.

It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what Lindisfarne at Southampton was in those days.  (Lindisfarne still exists in various forms, but not as a centralized location, as it travels along with the changes in Bill Thompson’s circumstances and life).   At that time, at an old resort on the water, it was a community with a garden, an occasional conference center for the most influential New Age and countercultural intellectuals and academics of the day, a cottage industry to sell tapes and books from those conferences, and to offer courses, and eventually a book publisher.

LindisfarneBill chose the name deliberately of course, with its reference to the ancient island monastery of Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England and its famous illuminated manuscripts.  He identified a kind of Christian mysticism there, although his Lindisfarne had no particular focus on Christianity.

“Lindisfarne does not offer a teaching, or a guru; the Association is a spiritual fellowship where Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, and others can meditate, study and work together to express more naturally whatever the emerging planetary culture is.”

My visit turned into a stay of several years as I became part of the community and the staff putting on conferences, and courses, and publishing.  Community life was not so airy-fairy and unfortunately not always so stimulating or free from conflict, and the idea of Lindisfarne itself changed over the years…

But I was privileged to be around to hear Gregory Bateson, John Todd, Russell Schweikart, Stewart Brand, Richard Baker, Huston Smith, Wendell Berry, Robert Bly, Gary Snyder, E.F. Schumacher, Paolo Soleri, and of course Bill himself in full oratorical flight which is an intellectual and mythological experience to cherish.

Okay, but what does this have to do with anything, especially sonic warbikes?

When I first arrived at this ramshackle old resort, in the nearby field next to Lindisfarne’s garden was a very large… sculpture, instrument, elegant symmetrical contraption…  I didn’t know what it was.  There were many wires tightly strung along and between the timbers of a wooden frame, its overall shape resembling a truncated cone with the smaller end on the ground.  It rose well above my head.

“What’s that?” I remember asking with some amazement of an attractive but incredibly intellectual girl who liked to use the word “heuristic” a lot.  “Oh,” she said, almost dismissively, “that’s the wind harp.”

Lindisfarne Wind Harp RevDesigned by Lewis Balamuth, a scientist and inventor with numerous patents to his name, a student of Gurdjieff, and one of the first Lindisfarne Fellows (a term reserved for conference heavyweights), this intricately built structure full of mysterious import still symbolizes Lindisfarne for me.

It may not have been the first night that I was there, but when the wind was just right, you could hear from afar the “thrum, thrum” and other more mysterious sounds, some loud and some just at the threshold of hearing.

In its presence, one sensed hints of the invisible life.

In a few years it was demolished and gone, as Lindisfarne moved and faded and moved again, and the Southampton location was bought by some developer.  But it came back to me, recently, when I heard the sounds of the warbike.



Notes on images, from top down:

The first is the Lindisfarne Association logo, used on publications I worked on.

The second, courtesy of Evan Thompson, is of the wind harp at Fish Cove in Southampton, Long Island.

For more on the Lindisfarne Association posted here, see Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, The Art of Tony Stubbing, and The Shadow.

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, Awareness, Culture, Environment, Internet, Remembering

11 Comments on “Of Warbikes and Wind Harps”

  1. qazse Says:

    Always interesting.
    You were a risk taker and reaped the rewards.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    I hadn’t thought of it that way, but on the whole, it was rewarding, although perhaps more in retrospect…


  3. forestrat Says:

    That warbiking stuff is pretty wild. Not sure I would call it music, but then I like to listen to the Monkees so what do I know.


  4. fencer Says:

    I knew some people cruised around looking for wireless networks to use… but the terms ‘wardriving’ and ‘warbiking’ I’d never come across before.


  5. Eliza Says:

    Fencer – what a fascinating past, and a quirky bit of info at the start – wardriving. Now I’m curious, what happened after Lindisfarne?

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Well, after Lindisfarne I stayed in New York City for awhile as a martial arts bum studying tai chi chuan and fencing and working at very minor publishing jobs.

    Then I decided I should move to San Francisco and again try to write the great novel, and again it didn’t work out. I worked here and there and continued studying tai chi and started aikido. I even ran into Bill again at San Francisco Zen Centre’s Green Gulch location in the mountains, which I visited one day. He kindly asked if I wanted to sit in on the Lindisfarne related conference he happened to be holding but I declined. I kind of wish I hadn’t now, but at the time I was on to other things.

    After San Fran it was back to British Columbia and another sleepy small town reporter’s job. After more twists and turns, I’m now involved with flood hazard management and dam safety of all things…

    Now that I think about it, I have led an odd sort of life… Thanks for asking!


  7. Eliza Says:

    Fencer…now I know where the nom de plume comes from…I hope you’re still persisting on that great novel idea. Given your background, there should be plenty of material to plough through and fashion.

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    I am percolating some kind of grand writing scheme… and I gotta start working it out soon or I’m going to lose it… ah, too many things to do.


  9. Fencer,
    It seems that you’ve had a a very interesting life – somewhat out on the edge, living your convictions, and sometimes just surviving through temporary stuff that didn’t feed your soul but maybe kept the body going.
    I sense a person always seeking, always learning and am very thankful that you share your experiences and your learning with the greater blogging world.
    Your alertness to the world around you it is a thing to be treasured. The new discoveries of this information age are quite mind-boggling – the warbiking, the wardriving and the idea that tendrils of information webs, networks, are invisibly invading our atmosphere and connecting or smothering us, unaware.


  10. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    Thanks for your thoughts…

    Often we paddle like mad through the information and the noise, not always sure which is which… and then there’s all the wavelengths of which we aren’t aware.

    It’s an interesting world!


  11. […] was/is the brainchild of cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, and I have written briefly about it before. It was intended to be, and was for a while in certain circles, a crossroads, an intellectual town […]

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